BOOK REVIEW: Firewalkers, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

firewalkers

Publisher: Solaris

Genre: Tomorrow Fiction/Post-Apocalyptic

Pages: 184

Publication Date: 14/05/2020

Verdict: 4/5

The Earth is burning. As the last of the rich and famous depart for a new life in space, those less fortunate scrape out a living to make the wealthies’ dreams a reality. Tasked with investigating a power supply issue, Firewalker Mao will uncover secrets that could still change the world . . .

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s third novella with Solaris is somehow even more bleak than the last. Not just in its content, though it certainly deals with some very weighty material, but in how chillingly plausible it all is. Tchaikovsky’s depiction of a world wracked by climate change and social inequality is hauntingly close to what we’re actually experiencing right now. They say that all good science fiction is based on information from the present, and by that standard Firewalkers is a roaring success. But it’s also a lot closer to the knuckle than a lot of other works, for better and for worse.

Firewalkers contains a lot of  ideas – a surprisingly large amount for such a compact novella. In under two hundred pages, Tchaikovsky covers space elevators, the end of the world, social divides, resource shortages, futuristic technology, and, Tchaikovsky being Tchaikovsky, there’re a few insects thrown in for good measure. It’s an eclectic mix, and one that seems on the surface to have to too much going on. But you needn’t worry, because Tchaikovsky balances them all with a deft hand. Like his other novellas, not to mention his longer works, he yet again proves himself a modern master of idea-based science fiction. This is exactly the sort of work I think an SF novel should be. Bold, daring, and innovative. If could be a little more fun, it would be a near-perfect book.

It’s the lack of fun that drags Firewalkers down from that pedestal. I don’t expect every book to be full of wisecracks and quipping. Indeed, many are better off without it, but Firewalkers goes beyond taking itself seriously and at times veers into the actively depressing. It’s the mark of a skilled writer to provoke an emotional reaction in their readers, but I primarily read for enjoyment, and while this was a very good book and I am glad I read it, I can’t honesty say I enjoyed it. Firewalkers does end on a message of hope, but that doesn’t make the journey any happier.

But this fault is a minor one, and one that won’t bother others anywhere near to the small bother it was for me. Writing with a distincive patois drawn from several languages, Mao and Tchaikovsky take us on a whirlwind tour of a post-apocalyptic Africa, from a shanty town at the foot of a space elevator, to abandoned mansions in the desert. Sometimes it feels like a series of compeltely random encounters, and there’s a certain dreamlike quality to some of them, but by the end they’re all tied together nicely. There’s a problem with a fair few modern novellas, in that they tend to end just where the story becomes interesting. Happily this is not an issue here, and while there is potential for a continuation, Firewalkers stands alone well enough.

Firewalkers may not be the happiest of books, but if you’re a fan of plausible futures and cutting edge storytelling, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

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